It's highly unusual for a 25-year-old writer to have her first play produced on the main stage of the prestigious Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville. The annual festival, now in its 33rd year, is the country's leading producer of new works.
What's more astounding is that the themes and complexity of Zoe Kazan's debut play, "Absalom," reveal an author whose insights into human nature have an unexpected maturity.
This two-act drama about an absent son's return to the family fold is set at a country house in the Berkshires in 1986, where the adult children of aging literary lion Saul Weber gather to celebrate the release of the patriarch's autobiography.
Immediately, there is tension between Adam, a former best-selling novelist, and his younger brother, Teddy, an editor who handled his father's tell-all book.
"I don't appreciate it when you use your anger to undermine my feelings," Teddy says to Adam, who responds: "I don't appreciate it when you use your therapy to undermine my anger."
Their sister, Sophia, a journalist and devoted daughter, has adopted the role of family matriarch and peacekeeper — a position that becomes more complicated with the arrival of their foster brother, Cole, who comes to stake his own claim as Saul's favorite.
Saul, a Polish immigrant and a self-made man, also is a self-centered, misogynistic philanderer. He exploits and bullies his children, whose hunger for their father's love and approval is painful to see. As Saul, the white-haired, goateed Peter Michael Goetz authoritatively portrays this insensitive, misguided man without trying to elicit a hint of sympathy. He lets Saul be Saul, and therein lies the tragedy.
The six-character play, directed by Giovanna Sardelli, is not without stilted scenes that look as uncomfortable for the actors as they feel for an observer. However, "Absalom" has admirable moments of surprise, juicy deceit and wit, as well as a layered story that unfolds with revelations strong enough to make one want to stick around and see if anyone will survive "the pack of wolves" that Adam (Todd Weeks) calls his family in a bruising verbal confrontation with his father.
"Absalom" was the name of biblical King David's third son. William Faulkner's 1936 novel "Absalom, Absalom!" chronicles the rise and fall of Thomas Sutpen, as retold by a variety of narrators.
The cast also includes Benjamin Huber as Teddy, Katie Kreisler as Sophia, Stephanie Janssen as Julia and J Anthony Crane as Cole.
The Webers will remind you of other families in the plays of Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams, who are wounded and bitter, jealous and manipulative. This is not to say that Kazan is the equal of these American theater masters, just a recognition of playwrights whose works may have influenced her.
I hope that "Absalom" is the beginning of a long writing career for Kazan, a Yale graduate and actor who recently performed with Oscar-winner Kristin Scott Thomas in the Broadway production of "The Seagull" and played opposite Leo DiCaprio in the movie "Revolutionary Road."
Kazan is the granddaughter of triple Academy Award-winner Elia Kazan and the daughter of Hollywood screenwriters and Oscar-nominees Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord. Like Sophia Weber in "Absalom," Zoe Kazan is searching to find her own path outside the shadow of a prominent literary family.
A tip of the hat to Actors' props and scene shops, specifically Mark Walston and Marshall Spratt, for building a natural-looking, 16-foot tree with apples that Sophia climbs and picks.
The realistic, modern Weber house with its stone patio, designed by Michael B. Raiford, spans the width of the Pamela Brown Auditorium stage, making it one of the largest sets ever created for a Humana Festival play.
The Humana Festival of New American Plays, supported by the Humana Foundation, continues through April 11.